Hold on tight, Australians – on New Year’s Day 2017, your entire country will jut northwards by 1.8 meters (5.9 feet). If, dear reader, you are now adorned with a doubt-infused frown, then you’ve probably clocked that this won’t be due to some apocalyptic shift in plate tectonics. Continental drift, however, does have a role to play in this geographic kerfuffle.
The Australian Plate is moving about 7 centimeters (2.8 inches) northwards every single year. This motion has accumulated over the decades to produce a significant discrepancy between local coordinates on maps and global coordinates in digital navigation systems used by satellites.
At present, this difference amounts to an error of 1.5 meters (4.9 feet). This is enough to cause a problem to anything in Australia that uses GPS-like systems, including smartphones and vehicles.
"If you want to start using driverless cars, accurate map information is fundamental," Dan Jaksa, a member of Geoscience Australia, told BBC News. “We have tractors in Australia starting to go around farms without a driver, and if the information about the farm doesn't line up with the coordinates coming out of the navigation system there will be problems.”
In order to stave off a grim future where autonomous tractors plough into helpless farm animals by mistake, the nation’s local coordinates will jump northwards at the start of next year. By 2020, the inexorable march of plate tectonics will catch up to the adjustment, and both the analogue and digital coordinate sets will match up for the first time since 1994, when the local coordinate system was last updated.
So as to stop this silliness happening again, a new as-of-yet unspecified system will be implemented in 2020 that will keep the two sets of coordinates matched in real-time. “Once we have a system that can deal with changes over time, then everybody in the world could be on that same system,” Jaksa added.
Australia was attached to Antarctica until around 85 million years ago, whereupon they began to initially rift apart. By 45 million years ago, 21 million years after the non-avian dinosaurs bit the dust, they had completely separated from each other. Although the Australian Plate initially fused with the Indian Plate, they have since become segregated, perhaps as little as 3 million years ago.
In 50 million years’ time, Australia will collide into the southeastern coast of China, eventually forming a brand new mountain range. It will be one of the earliest jigsaw pieces that will culminate in the formation of Pangaea Ultima, the next true supercontinent, 250 million years from now. By then, it’s likely that our coordinate technology would have moved on quite a bit.